The political life and the moral imagination

No two political dilemmas are ever, or have ever been, identical. Every situation has its own set of particularities: these people, this place, this issue, these rules. This means that politics is almost always messy and solutions are rarely clear-cut. How, then, can students prepare for these sorts of dilemmas? How can they prepare for citizenship, for a life of politics?

Despite what some think, it is clear that no amount of training in purely deductive reasoning or logic will equip students for the messy nature of politics. Political science is not a formula that can be mapped out a priori and then applied uniformly whenever a problem arises. Politics is simply not this easy. Moreover, citizens do not always have much time to think before responding. Decisions to help a neighbor or defend one’s family need to be made quickly without much in the way of deep, philosophical consideration.

It seems, then, that what the student preparing for citizenship needs is imagination: the ability to respond to situations with enough spirit so as to act well in light of all the relevant particulars. Russell Kirk and many others call this type of imagination the moral imagination, a spirit which “aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth.”

As Kirk rightly points out, the moral imagination “was the gift and obsession of Plato.” In Republic, Plato recognizes that we all have a “high-spirited element in our nature,” but without the proper cultivation, this high-spiritedness can lead us astray. We may become over-zealous in our pursuits. That is, we may become as the man who thought he was “more brave and bold than he was.” On the other hand, if we neglect our spiritedness we may become “hard and harsh,” with little spirit at all. For Plato and his most famous student Aristotle, there must be some proper cultivation that forms a citizen into the type of person who embodies the mean between these two extremes–a spiritedness which allows a person to be noble, brave and competent, without being too bold or too harsh. This type of spiritedness is only possible by cultivating the moral imagination, the spirit which aspires to order and to the good.

For Plato and Kirk alike, one of the most fundamental ways to cultivate this type of imagination is through story. When reading epic poems, fairy tales and novels, there is no need to study and copy down diagrams that map out moral imperatives and duties. Instead, we find morality exemplified. We learn about characters who are as much in the messy business of politics as we are. In the best of stories, we see them making moral decisions while struggling with right and wrong. We find Job remaining faithful in the midst of despair, Antigone burying Polynices against the orders of the city, Elizabeth Bennett marrying Mr. Darcy after all sorts of confusion and Atticus Finch defending Tom Robinson even though he knows he will lose. We get a robust picture of political life, with all the intricate details and particularities of its dilemmas.

Moreover, we do not just learn about these characters, we learn to love them. Stories shape our loves which, in turn, shape our feelings–what the ancient philosophers call our passions. Stories are therefore central to developing a moral imagination because it is our passions that constitute the high-spiritedness of human nature that Plato describes. Our passions spur us to respond either courageously or cowardly, nobly or slavishly, because they spur us to act toward what we love. If we love what is base or vile, we will not desire the good, and we will be too cowardly or slavish to pursue it. But, through loving moral characters, we learn to love morality, to love order, and thus are more inclined to act toward the good of others and ourselves. We may then be courageous or noble enough to do what is right. This, as C.S. Lewis describes, is the true purpose of education. Drawing on Aristotle, he writes, education is “to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.”

In this way, the moral imagination allows for a certain kind of moral spontaneity. It allows citizens to do what is right and to do it in the short time allotted. This, it seems, is precisely what citizens need for those messy political dilemmas: when a neighbor needs to be helped or a family needs defending. Well-formed citizens can trust their moral imaginations, for they have already been formed by the love of what is good. Stories about good citizens help to form good citizens–through our favorite characters we learn to love what is moral and thus to recognize and pursue it.

Of course, students must choose these stories carefully. Certainly, there are stories in which the characters are not good or even complex enough to exemplify any sort of morality. This is why Lewis urges us to read the stories that have transcended generations. While a new book, as he writes, “is still on its trial,” an old book has stood the test of time. “All its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author him/herself) have been brought to light.” Like an old house, which has weathered many storms, an old book, which has prompted and aided conversations over generations, can be trusted. And so, then, we can also trust a moral imagination cultivated by its stories.

Sources: Russell Kirk, “The Moral Imagination,” Plato, Republic, C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis, Introduction to On the Incarnation, by St. Athanasius


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